In the wake of China’s test of a hypersonic missile, the second most senior US general said Thursday that the pace at which China’s military is developing capabilities is “stunning” while US development suffers from “brutal” bureaucracy.
The outgoing Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, echoed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s characterization of China as a “pacing threat” while calling Russia the most imminent threat.
“Calling China a pacing threat is a useful term because the pace at which China is moving is stunning,” Hyten told reporters at a Defense Writers Group roundtable Thursday morning. “The pace they’re moving and the trajectory they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it. It will happen. So I think we have to do something.”
“It’s not just the United States but the United States and our allies because that’s the thing that really changes the game,” Hyten added. “If it’s the United States only, it’s going to be problematic in five years. But if it’s the United States and our allies I think we can be good for a while.”
Hyten’s comments come a week after a US hypersonic test failed and as tensions between the US and China remain high over the issue of Taiwan. He reiterated US concern voiced by his direct superior, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, about the recently reported Chinese hypersonic test which Milley called “very close” to a “Sputnik moment.”
When asked about the initial Financial Times report on the hypersonic test, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the August test was “a spacecraft, not a missile.”
Hyten said his successor will need to focus on ‘speed’
Hyten is set to retire next month and, in what will likely be some of his last public remarks as Vice Chairman, he encouraged his as-yet-unnamed successor “in everything that he touches to focus on speed and re-inserting speed back in the process of the Pentagon.” Hyten previously served as commander of US Strategic Command, where he was in charge of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and monitored strategic threats to the United States.
“Although we’re making marginal progress, the Department of Defense is still unbelievably bureaucratic and slow,” Hyten said. “We can go fast if we want to but the bureaucracy we put in place is just brutal.”
Hyten declined to elaborate on what’s known about China’s hypersonic missile test over the summer, simply confirming that a test occurred and “it’s very concerning.”
But he made clear that Russia is the most imminent threat to the US because of their more than 1500 deployed nuclear weapons, saying that China has roughly 20 percent of that.
The hypersonic and nuclear weapons China are building, Hyten said, are only partially to do with Taiwan. Rather, they’re “meant for the United States of America.”
“We have to assume that, and we have to plan for that, and we have to be ready for that, and that’s the position they’re putting us in with the weapons they’re building.”
Earlier on Thursday China reiterated its long-standing opposition to any official and military contact between the United States and Taiwan, responding to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s remarks during a CNN exclusive interview. Speaking with CNN Tuesday, Tsai became the first Taiwan leader in decades to confirm the presence of US troops on the island for training purposes and said the threat from Beijing is growing “every day.”
“The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that” single test, Milley told Bloomberg News. “They’re expanding rapidly in space, in cyber and then in the traditional domains of land, sea and air.”
US has carried nine hypersonic tests compared to ‘hundreds’ by China
Hyten pointed to the development of hypersonic weapons to highlight the stark difference in approaches by the US and China. He said the US has carried out nine hypersonic tests in around the last five years while the “Chinese have done hundreds.”
“Single digits versus hundreds is not a good place,” Hyten said. “Now it doesn’t mean that we’re not moving fast in the development process of hypersonics, what it does tell you is that our approach to development is fundamentally different.”
Hyten also criticized the American attitude toward failure, arguing that it has curtailed development.
“We’ve decided that failure is bad,” Hyten said. “Nope, failure is part of the learning process. And if you want to get back to speed, you better figure out how to put speed back into [sic] and that means taking risk and that means learning from failures and that means failing fast and moving fast.”
A failed test of a hypersonic glide vehicle last week underscored Hyten’s point. A rocket booster, used to accelerate a glide vehicle to hypersonic speeds, failed, the Pentagon said, and the rest of the test could not proceed. Officials have started a review of the test to find out why the rocket booster failed, and there is not currently a scheduled date for another test.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, has learned the lesson of failed tests to speed up development, Hyten argued.
Unlike Kim Jong Un’s father, Hyten said, “He decided not to kill scientists and engineers when they failed, he decided to encourage it and let them learn by failing. And they did. So the 118th biggest economy in the world – the 118th – has built an ICBM nuclear capability because they test and fail and understand risk.”